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How caucusing with Democrats is dramatically different

The Democratic caucus is far more complicated than its Republican counterpart.

For all the hype that surrounds the Iowa caucuses, many Americans still find the process of caucusing to be somewhat mysterious. Starting tonight at 7:00 p.m. CT, eligible voters who will be at least 18 years old by Election Day can participate in the Iowa caucuses. Iowa voters must be registered with the respective party in order to partake, although same-day registration is available at precinct caucus locations.

The Democratic caucus is far more complicated than its Republican counterpart. When voters arrive at the caucus site, they break into groups either for their candidate or for uncommitted voters. The percentage of supporters each candidate receives is then calculated. At most Democratic caucus locations, a contender must get support from at least 15 percent of attendees to be considered viable. If a candidate does not meet this threshold, his or her supporters must align with a different contender or join uncommitted voters. This process repeats until all remaining candidates are deemed viable. The number of delegates awarded at each caucus location is then calculated with a mathematical formula. The Iowa Democratic Party has said that there will be a total of 1,406 state delegates, and the overall winner is the candidate who receives the most state delegate equivalents.  For example, if a candidate gets 55 percent on caucus night, that candidate will have won 55 percent — or 773 — of the state delegate equivalents. 

RELATED: Behind closed doors at the Iowa caucuses

In addition to confusion about the Democratic caucusing procedure, concerns have been voiced about its basic administration. Tightly limited hours have been a subject of contention, as anyone who arrives late will not gain admission and there is no absentee or early voting. Democrats are also said to lack people to run the caucus in hundreds of sites, with shifting or incorrect caucus sites making the process more difficult.

The Republican contest is relatively straightforward. When voters go to their caucus location, they will select their candidate through a secret-ballot vote. After the ballots are counted, the winner is announced and delegates are subsequently awarded. There is no viability threshold or realignment, nor is there a mathematical formula to determine delegates awarded at each location.

Tonight’s results will set the stage for the rest of the primary season and could have significant consequences for the dynamic of both the Republican and Democratic fields. According to the last Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll before the Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump is leading the GOP field with the support of 28 percent of likely caucus-goers with Ted Cruz at 23 percent and Marco Rubio at 15 percent. Hillary Clinton leads the Democratic side with 45 percent, with Bernie Sanders behind her at 42 percent and Martin O’Malley at 3 percent.